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Columnist Chelsea Kline: The case for depopulating our jails, prisons

  • A file photo inside at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Corrections. gazette file Photo

Published: 3/27/2020 5:33:04 PM

The current conditions for the inmates at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction are an affront to basic civil rights, public health best practices and decent human morality.

Even if you rarely think of the individuals who spend their days and nights locked in our local correctional facilities, their fates may very well be entwined with yours.

Make no mistake, COVID-19 is already infecting jails, correctional facilities and courtrooms across Massachusetts. If we don’t demand that sheriffs take action now, then we will have an explosion of infections in our communities that will most certainly threaten to completely overwhelm our local hospitals.

The divisions between those who are free and those who are incarcerated are completely arbitrary in the face of a pandemic, and the only answer now to is immediately release as many people as possible.

There’s no question that social distancing is the only effective method for slowing the spread of the virus. However, the current conditions Hampshire County Jail make it utterly impossible for inmates and guards alike to even attempt the recommended 6 feet of distance for a moment of their day. Inmates have truly no choice but sleep, eat, exercise and shower within extremely close proximity to one another.

Many inmates suffer health conditions or advanced age that would exacerbate the impact of the virus, leading to hospitalization or support in an intensive care unit. Moreover, staff flow in and out of the jail every day, which will greatly contribute to the spread of the virus. There are multiple staff shifts each day, and each staff member will come into close contact with inmates, and then go home to their families.

The fact is that the virus doesn’t distinguish between inmates and staff, between who’s locked up and who is simply showing up to work. It is truly imperative that we make every effort for everyone to distance socially immediately, and our local jails are making that impossible. If we don’t slow the spread of the virus, then our health care systems will be overrun, to the detriment of us all.

Dr. Christopher Beyrer, former president of the International AIDS Society and professor of Epidemiology, International Health, and Medicine at Johns Hopkins University released an affidavit on March 16, stating that it is “an urgent priority in this time of national public health emergency to reduce the number of persons in detention as quickly as possible.” He adds, “Given the experience in China as well as the literature on infectious diseases in jail, an outbreak of COVID-19 among the U.S. jail and prison population is likely. Releasing as many inmates as possible is important to protect the health of inmates, the health of correctional facility staff, the health of health care workers at jails and other detention facilities, and the health of the community as a whole.”

We must immediately follow the recent examples of other states, such as New York and Connecticut, who have released significant numbers of incarcerated people to allow for proper social distancing.

To accomplish this urgent goal, we must release 90% of the incarcerated population today. Sheriffs have long since had the statutory authority to set the terms of incarceration, as Commonwealth V. Donahue recognized back in 2008. Shortened or modified sentences are more common than many people would believe, and there are numerous examples of individuals going under house arrest or receiving a GPS device during times of overcrowding in jails, or a shortened sentence for good behavior.

The sheriff has the authority to release people today, and this is an unprecedented global emergency that requires quick action for the sake of the greater good.

Of the nearly 200 people who are confined at the Hampshire County correctional facility alone, many have less than two weeks left to serve, some are serving for technical probation violations, some are on probation for nonviolent, victimless crimes like drug possession. There are inmates who are eligible for parole but simply haven’t had a parole hearing.

The sheriffs have the discretion to select which inmates must remain in custody, and which can return to their communities to shelter in place for the sake of stopping the spread.

Ultimately, many more people are going die if we don’t act immediately. We are all in uncharted waters as these unprecedented events unfold, and we must prioritize public health and human dignity above all else. The core goal of the criminal justice system is to keep the public safe, but keeping people confined in close quarters during a pandemic does not keep us safe. By willfully ignoring the urgent pleas of our public health officials, we are recklessly allowing this deadly virus to spread.

By choosing to keep people incarcerated during this pandemic, we are committing far greater crimes against humanity and basic decency.

Please join me in a desperate plea to our sheriffs, elected officials, and district attorney to depopulate Massachusetts jails and prisons immediately.

Chelsea Kline is a social justice advocate in western Massachusetts and a mother of three. She writes a monthly column for the Gazette.

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